By Caitlin Dolan
This article originally appeared in the print version of the Spring 2013 issue of The Wall.
During the academic year 2011-2012, I studied abroad in Shanghai, China to improve my Mandarin language skills and immerse myself in the Chinese culture. Upon entering Shanghai, I was able to physically experience China’s economic boom in its famous masterpiece, The Bund.
The Bund is Shanghai’s waterfront area, which holds 52 buildings and one of the richest collections of art deco in the world. Within the last 20 years, The Communist Party has built up this area for international business, tourism and architectural expression. The Bund is China’s image for the world to see how much the country has developed and thrived economically.
After I joined the Habitat for Humanity in China, I was able to witness the alarming difference between China’s extravagant Shanghai city life and the Chinese countryside. Up until this point, I imagined China to be very well developed everywhere due to the country’s rank as the world’s second largest economy.
How bad could homelessness be in China?
In 2008, an earthquake devastated the Mayan village, located on a mountain in Qionglai city in Sichuan. With a population of 1,380 people, the citizens lived in houses made of mud, wood and bricks. The village did not have appropriate sanitation, electricity or a clean water supply.
After this earthquake, many of the houses were destroyed due to mudslides, leaving most people homeless. The Mayan people are very traditional and sheltered from the outside world, so most are uneducated and illiterate. Thus, they found it difficult to relocate and find work in the bordering city of Chengdu, another one of China’s cities specifically used for international business.
Hope came to the Mayan village in 2010 when the government of Qionglai City supported the national “New Rural Construction Policy” to raise the safety level and improve the quality of life. For the first time, China allowed an outside organization to come in and restore homes that were damaged due to natural disasters. Habitat for Humanity was given funding to come in and build new houses that are able to hold up against an earthquake with 8.0 magnitude.
I was the leader of Team 2, in charge of lifting bricks and stones from the mud that was still left behind from the destroyed homes in order to construct new homes for the families. Aside from participating in the day’s activities, I had the opportunity to become close with one of the elders in the village, 哩哩 (Lili). I carried the debris from her destroyed home in a basket backpack that she made for us. I also went to her temporary shack on the side of the dirt road for tea and conversation. 哩哩 (Lili) told me about her family and her business collecting and distributing spring tea leaves to and from Chengdu.
She also told me that before Habitat for Humanity, she never saw a foreigner before in her life. She is thankful every day for the organization helping her village to end the two years of suffering spent homeless, without proper food supply or sanitation. Habitat for Humanity is finishing up the Mayan village this fall with new homes for every family.
Through my volunteering, I saw different kinds of homelessness and poverty. The disaster in China created homelessness for a very rural community.
In Trenton, Habitat for Humanity also plays an important role in the lives of families that are in need of stable housing. The families are always very welcoming to volunteers. There is never a day that goes by that I am not offered a cool drink or conversation.
The same is true in the Mayan Village, only in the Chinese way: tea and dumplings. Both communities wanted to get to know the volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. I can honestly say that my work in Trenton prepared me for overcoming the cultural boundaries that were present in the Mayan Village. The families in Trenton want a safe and stable place to call home and I knew it to be the same in Mayan, China.
In my experience in China, not only was I able to volunteer, but I was also able to leave with a better understanding of what it means to be a volunteer—adjusting to diverse situations to effectively serve with the little amount of time you have in that special place. Whether you are volunteering in a city or a rural village, homelessness comes in vastly different shapes and sizes. So, listen and learn, challenge your limits, and find yourself with a greater understanding for the world.